#48 – Letting Go

Of expectations

Of how it’s “supposed to be”

Of old hurts

Of waiting for other people to “get” you

Of old patterns

Of smallness

Of hoarding

Of dualism

Of negativity

Of waiting to be “picked”

Of isolation

Of separation

Of the facade

Of control

Of fear

Of silence

Of what no longer serves you, your family, your community

Let it all go and relish in the freedom of the release. What you needed then made sense…then. It doesn’t make sense to hold it anymore.

So, let it go.


This is #48 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Up for another?


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#41 – Change Ready

I believe that both leadership failures and leadership successes can be traced to a common question: has the leader done his or her internal work?

That work – the decision to diminish the influence of one’s past experience on one’s present behaviors – always precedes external awareness. It always precedes one’s ability to remain rooted and resilient in the face of change.

Put another way, the capacity of a leader to accept and engage with external change in a manner that is reassuring, resourceful, collaborative, and brimming with empathy for whomever is most affected, is positively correlated to the degree to which that leader is free from the constrictions of old adaptations.

This is crucial to understand because every day a leader does not act upon this knowledge is another day he employs an operating model that was once relevant but is now obsolete. And operating from an obsolete model like, for example, the need to be right, the need for endless praise, the need for easy answers to complex problems, the reliance on dualism, the need for allegiance, endlessly avoiding responsibility while blaming others, all of these only lead to the promotion of anxiety while failing to address the demands of change.

Think of it this way: people were driving and crashing their cars for a long time before seat belts, safety glass and air bags showed up. Those inventions don’t prevent the crashes, they limit the human damage. What was once a sure fatality is now more likely a few bruises and an insurance hassle.

Doing the most comprehensive internal work we can do equips us, just like those safety features, to make contact with change without it causing permanent damage to the people we are privileged to lead.


This is #41 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s a slightly different take on today’s post.

PS: If you are reading this on Facebook, I would like to invite you to go to my website to sign-up for direct delivery of my blog posts. I will be de-activating my FB account at the end of the month. Thank you!


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#33 – Originality

Doing a bad imitation of yourself is always better than doing a great imitation of someone else.

A “bad” imitation? Yes, as in you are still coming into your own. You are still discovering your point of view, clarifying your values, finding confidence in your strengths, getting comfortable with feedback, learning how to stand by your work at the same time you are learning how to recover from mistakes.

In the midst of all of that developmental messiness there is the potential to experience deep feelings of insecurity. There is the potential for the belief to take hold that who you are in a less confident, less composed, less fully formed state is not suitable for public viewing and should, as a result, be shelved in favor of showing up like someone else.

There is value in imitation, of course. I have heard many professionals, artists and engineers alike, describe their earliest efforts as attempts to copy the work of their role-models, those role-models providing the high-water mark of their burgeoning aspiration. At some point, however, whether you’re an artist, an engineer, a politician or an athlete, must discover and cultivate an original voice.

This is a progressive, iterative process. There is no flip of a switch. And because that is so, my vote is to get started when the clay is still soft. That is to say, to not allow the myths of “readiness” or “maturity” or “age appropriateness” get in the way of the expression of who you are right now.

Everyone looks back on their early work with one eye closed, a little sheepish and  critical. That’s who you were then. And because of that, you have become what you are now.

No substitutes. No imitations.

This is #33 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Perhaps one more?


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#30 – You Can Adjust Your Default Setting

Two beliefs are highly problematic for the modern human being. The first is the belief that we are supposed to be rational actors and the second is the belief that we are.

Just two minutes of silence reveals that in each of our heads exists a chorus of competing, irrational voices that makes our decision-making, especially under stress, unreliable if not problematic. For an even more clarifying experience, try something new, meet someone new, go someplace unfamiliar, navigate by landmarks instead of GPS, anything that increases your heart rate and decreases your sense of security. Now listen to the voices in your head. They should be practically chanting what amounts to your default setting, or how you see the world and your place in it under the stress of change.

That messy mix of voices is the aggregation of your preferences, perceptions, judgments and biases, the result of years of dragging a large collection net behind you through a rich, difficult and multifaceted life.

Remember, your default setting has been working hard to help you make sense of your world and to protect your place in it for a very long time. It’s not that it’s bad or wrong, it’s just that it’s no longer as useful as it once was. It feels useful, and better than an alternative, because it’s familiar and that’s the thinking that keeps us stuck in the status quo.

Here are three options for how to adjust your default setting, not so you can finally become rational, but so that you can more capably organize your competing voices of irrationality under stress.

One, in the category of highly desirable but completely unrealistic, you can find a wise teacher high on a distant mountain and take the next 10, maybe 20 years to get there, live there, and learn.

Two, in the category of moderately desirable and more realistic, you can find a counselor, therapist or coach somewhere in your neighborhood (or via the magic of Zoom!) and take the next five years to explore yourself, make sense of your learning and practice new ways of thinking and feeling.

Three, in the category of undesirable and totally realistic, you can do the following beginning right now:

  1. Pay attention to yourself in familiar, stressful situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  2. Put yourself into unfamiliar situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  3. Share what you notice with someone you trust and who has your best interests at heart and see what they think and what feedback they have to share.
  4. Identify and clarify the few things that matter most to you (financial security, family happiness, health and well-being, new experiences, community building, environmental action, continuous learning, achievement, impact, etc.). Use your spending habits and your calendar for clues. Write them down and share them with the person in #3 above, among others. See what they think.
  5. Do the same thing with your strengths. Get as clear as you can about what you do best when you are at your best. Think of concrete examples, write those stories down and share them, as above.
  6. Repeat with an honest assessment of your weaknesses (“opportunities” or “challenges” for the euphemistically inclined). The more honest you get, the better off you will be.
  7. Now, your aspirations and goals. What do you want and why? Write it down. Who knows about this? Find the right people and let them know, you might even ask for help.

What’s happening here? How is this laborious (and therefore undesirable) process of self-reflection, paying attention, writing down and sharing going to lead to the better management of your inherent irrationality?

It’s going to ground you, root you, establish you in your corner of the world by using clarification and understanding as a means to build confidence. The irony of the personal and relational insight that you will gain is that it will make you more aware of and accepting of your irrationality, as well as that of others, which in turn will make you one of the most rational people around.


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#25 – Take Responsibility for Your Learning

This is #25 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another good one.


Jia Jang is inspiring. He feared rejection so much that he decided to pursue it directly with the hope that he would learn to respond to it more positively and more productively.

He recounts his “100 Day Rejection Challenge” in a self-effacing, funny and sincere TED Talk. It’s hard not to smile along – to root for him – as he teaches us an extraordinary lesson.

In the end I felt like I was rooting for myself; to keep learning new things, to keep seeking new challenges, to keep opening my heart to new people and experiences. All of this takes risk and, as Jia so thoughtfully proposes, all of it leads to benefits far too richly saturated for the fearful mind to anticipate or articulate.

{You can also hear Jia talk about his experience on this terrific episode of the TED Radio Hour}


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#20 – It’s ok to be “Good Enough”

This is #20 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another one I keep going back to.


The following passage is from an article by Jennifer Kunst in which she provides a compelling interpretation of Donald Winnicott’s theory of the “good enough mother.” As you read it I invite you to do so in a way that allows it to speak to the identity with which you most associate. As needed, replace “mother” with father, boss, leader, teacher, etc.

“What I like about Winnicott’s picture of the good enough mother is that she is a three-dimensional human being. She is a mother under pressure and strain. She is full of ambivalence about being a mother. She is both selfless and self-interested. She turns toward her child and turns away from him. She is capable of great dedication yet she is also prone to resentment. Winnicott even dares to say that the good enough mother loves her child but also has room to hate him. She is not boundless. She is real.”

I cannot read this without being flooded with empathy for all of us who struggle with the pressure to be certain, to be right, to be perfect. We would be better off – far better off – if we were able to collectively let go of the myths that keep us small in favor of a more accurate accounting of the common humanity that serves to enlarge and enliven us.

According to Winnicott’s theory, “The good-enough mother…starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure” (Winnicott, 1953).

The “good enough mother” creates enough distance from her child, thoughtfully and over time, to allow the child to find its own way. By doing so she creates the conditions for differentiation and independence and problem solving skills and resilience. She creates the conditions in which a child can learn how to be among those who thrive in the face of uncertainty, making meaningful contributions to society squarely in the face of the unknown.

It must be for this reason that James Michener once wrote: “I have recently decided that the constructive work of the world is done by an appallingly small percentage of the population….Those men and women who do have the energy to form new constructs and new ways to implement them must do the work of many. I believe it to be an honorable aspiration to want to be among the creators.”

As mother, father, boss, leader or teacher you have acted on your aspiration to be “among the creators” and you are striving to have lasting impact in the face of challenges and changes too numerous to mention. Your contribution to those you serve, then, will best be measured by the ability you cultivate in them to stand in the midst of uncertainty on their own two feet. Propping them up or protecting them from failure only serves to ensure that they will one day join the large percentage Michener describes instead of being a vital force in the “constructive work of the world.”

“Good enough” is much more than good enough. It is how we equip those we love and those we serve to be a force for good in the world.


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#18 – Build Capability Before You Need It

This is #18 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another one that I like a lot.


Since we know that nothing lasts forever, a healthy, necessary and realistic point of view for leaders to take is that whatever is working right now will not necessarily work next year. Rationally, we understand that. Emotionally, however, we are too frequently loathe to question ourselves when things are going well as if we might jinx our good fortune. Harry Potter taught an entire world of wizards that it was not only ok to “speak his name” (Voldemort, that is) but it was actually necessary to do so to have any chance of defeating him.

What follows are the direct and specific actions I believe leaders must take if they are to be successful in building capability for the future. I have divided the list into three categories: Developmental, Strategic and Cautionary.

DEVELOPMENTAL

1. Go to therapy. Don’t walk, run. Since many leaders are narcissists and all leaders have narcissistic qualities they are more fragile than they appear to be. (Both Michael Maccoby and Manfred Kets de Vries have written extensively and powerfully on the subject.) When they are wounded by criticism and questioning of their leadership they often don’t heal very quickly and may actually go to great lengths to even the score. As you know, it can get pretty ugly. And, since everything else I am about to advocate involves building infrastructure to question the system, leaders need to build a tough and thoughtful resilience to bear it well. They need to learn not to take every new idea for improvement as an indictment of their leadership but rather as a response to an invitation to keep getting better. For that to happen, those narcissistic wounds are better worked out in the therapist’s office than in the conference room. (If you’re wondering if someone’s a narcissist you can always just ask them.)

2. Send all key leaders to therapy. For all of the reasons stated above.

3. Or at least provide them with highly skilled coaching support. A great coaching relationship can and often does feel “therapeutic” (one senior leader I worked with referred to it as “couching”). The key is to have a safe, trustworthy partner to work through the holistic challenges of work, home and health. All necessary subjects for an effective executive to discuss and work on regularly.

4. Be more human than otherwise. That is to say, thoughtfully reveal your vulnerability, things you’re working on, the challenges you face. Items #1-3 will be very helpful in equipping you to do this. When you become accessible to your team as a human being you increase your power by strengthening your connections. Those connections become the lifeline for communication. And communication is at the heart of learning how to get better.

5. Treat people like adults. Respect them enough to be transparent about what’s going on. Be clear about what you need. Expect them to do the same for you. You’re not their mom or dad. You don’t have to protect them from the truth. You do need to give them a chance to rise to the occasion. If they can’t or don’t you’ll have the information you need to support them in their own development.

STRATEGIC

6. Make every leader accountable for a meaningful annual report of what needs to change in his or her function in the coming year. There is always something to improve. ALWAYS. Building in this kind of evaluative, reflective process expands our capacity for having hard discussions and normalizes the process of doing so. And this is to be done in open dialogue with the whole team, starting with the people who are actually doing the work each day. A simple question for them: if you could change one thing that would allow you to be more effective in fulfilling your job responsibility, what would it be? (Note: if you don’t get useful answers the first time around it’s probably because they don’t trust you enough to be honest. Earn that trust by keeping at it in a sincere and authentic way. If that’s hard for you, see item #1.)

7. Determine how you will change first. No meaningful change happens until the leader decides to change. Figure out what change in your behavior will help bring about the larger change initiative and get busy. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is not an invitation but an admonition.

8. Hold Pre and Post-mortem meetings for every project. In the pre meeting ask as many people as possible what they think could go wrong. Learn to anticipate the bumps and get your team ready to respond. The post-mortem is more of a no-brainer but usually overlooked because we’re already off to the next thing. Even a couple of simple questions – again, asked of all involved – will build openness and a greater capacity for learning: What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn about yourself and our team? 

9. Expect leaders to coach their teams and teach them how to do so. Here’s a fine job description for a key leader: spend time everyday understanding the business and how all the pieces fit together (educate your team about same); critically consider what’s working and what’s not in your function and engage your team in frequent dialogue about same; make plans for improvement by seeking as much perspective as possible; assign responsibilities to follow through on plans; provide coaching support and resources to ensure success; recognize and celebrate publicly and tangibly. This is a talking, engaging, coaching, critical thinking, relationship job. It is not a protect, defend, isolate, manipulate, scheme and otherwise preserve hierarchical hegemony job.

CAUTIONARY

10. Don’t pretend to do any of the above. Up to now, I’ve offered suggestions on what to “do.” Here’s my first and only “don’t do.” Any inauthentic attempt at any of the above will be sniffed out immediately and seen for the manipulative tactic that it is. You gotta mean it or don’t even bother. Good people will leave and you will be surrounded by scared people all too willing to tell you that you’re great and that what “we’re doing” is just right and will certainly last forever.

Until it doesn’t and you end up in therapy anyway.


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#14 – Tell the truth as fast as you can

This is #14 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


Sounds good, right?

It’s almost obvious, a little bit patronizing even.

And, yet.

It can be very hard to do.

How long do you sit on your feelings, questioning them, rationalizing them, negating them? How often do you rehearse difficult conversations in your mind, playing them out over and over, sounding more and more eloquent, clear and convincing, only to have it all fall apart in real time?

The problem with the word “truth” is that it may only be your truth. This is why it makes a lot of sense to heed Brené Brown’s advice and start any truth-telling conversation with this line: “The story I’m telling myself is…”

This has the powerful effect of keeping you on the hook for sharing what you are there to share and letting you off the hook for having to be right. Because your truth is not “right,” of course. It’s likely part of a larger truth, one that was co-created by you and someone else you probably care a lot about, but not a truth that can stand on its own.

But speed matters most of all, because the longer you stew on your truth, the bigger your self-righteousness becomes and the faster your resentment grows. Or is that just me?

It’s hard to speak up, to be vulnerable, to share our hurts, to risk being misunderstood and possibly mistaken. The sooner we do so, the sooner we find out what’s real and that’s when we earn the right, once again, to a free mind and an open heart.


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#10 – “Development” is a Verb

This is #10 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


Development is an action.

Like any effective action it requires insight and planning (reflection) to precede it but, at its core, development is about forward movement and progress. This is not to convey an image of “leaps and bounds” but of an active progression of small steps, the accumulation of which lead to new insights and behaviors which you can name as “developmental progress.”

I do not believe in the distinction between “personal” and “professional” development. Development is always holistic. What occurs in one element of your life occurs in all of the others as well.

The good news about that is that the actions one takes in any area of life will ripple across those perceived boundary lines and have impact on a much larger scale.

Development requires a commitment to remain in conversation with the primary themes that are yours to know and own and to gain more and greater understanding about those themes throughout your life.

This is action with no discernible end point which is why, needless to say, it can be very difficult to keep moving forward. These moments or periods of regression make a lot of sense. Past reactions and behaviors are known and comfortable. Establishing new reactions and behaviors can be exhausting and when you’ve had enough, you backslide into the comfort of the old.

At the very least, a regression serves as a reminder that you have moved forward, if not yet to a sustainable level, enough to indicate that it is possible to do so! And this is where remembering that development is a verb is so important. Unless you have given it away, you always retain your agency to act in your own best interest. You always get to choose to take the next step.

Small actions are still actions. And the right small actions, over time, have the potential to lead to compelling change.


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#4 – Know Your Strengths

Between now and March 22, I am happy to share “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


What are you doing when you are at your best?

What are you doing when you feel the most accomplished, competent and confident? What are you doing when you feel energized, when time flies by, when your work is not work but a natural extension of yourself?

As you answer these questions, you are describing your strengths.

And your ability to do so – with clarity and conviction – is the best chance you have to make sure you get to use them as much as possible.

We are shy about our strengths. There is a common cultural conditioning to be experts at naming our deficiencies and novices at naming our gifts. This is a huge mistake, a massive cultural gap that will only narrow when you and I decide that it’s not just ok but necessary to name, to own, and to live out the very best of who we are.

We too often defer to others – especially authority figures, especially bosses – to tell us what we should be good at. Some know better than to do this but most do not. And so, it’s our responsibility to define them first so that we can be our own best advocates for doing more fulfilling work and living more fulfilling lives. It’s our responsibility to make it clear so that we can teach others how to work with us for mutual and sustainable success.

If after reading this you are scratching your head, wondering what your strengths are, go ask a few trusted colleagues and friends. Go ask them for examples of when you are at your best. Ask them to describe your strengths. And then listen, really listen, and trust what you hear.

The sooner you do so, the sooner you’ll give up on the temptation to fit the square peg of yourself into the round hole of that “great” opportunity. The sooner you do so, the sooner you’ll discover the consolation of awareness that leads to insight, and the insight that leads to action.


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